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Shakespeare's Playhouse Reborn on the Thames

It has been trumpeted as one of the most exciting events in recent theatrical history. It is also the realization of a long-held dream. William Shakespeare's Globe Playhouse, which burned to the ground in 1613, has for the first time in more than three centuries reopened for business - a mere stone's throw from where it stood in Elizabethan times.

The Globe is where the great flowering of English drama occurred, and the significance of its reopening is hard to overstate. For Shakespeare devotees from dozens of nations who contributed to the reconstruction, it marks a return to an era when a love of language was common. Hopes are high that it will help revive this passion among contemporary audiences as well as educate theatergoers about the playwright himself.

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The Globe was central to Shakespeare's life and work. Indeed, after the Bard of Avon became resident playwright, all of his works were written for and performed at the legendary "Wooden O." When the theater caught fire during a performance of "Henry VIII," its demise also brought an abrupt end to the Bard's incomparable career. With his theater in ashes, the playwright laid down his quill and retired to his birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon. He died soon after.

Despite a number of attempts in years past to reconstruct the Globe (including by such illustrious folk as Sir Walter Scott and Lady Randolph Churchill), no one has managed to get the project off the ground until now. And while the Globe complex - including another smaller theater plus an exhibition and educational center - remains unfinished, and the official gala opening has been postponed (until June 1997) to allow for still more fund-raising, there is no question that what has been achieved is little short of amazing.

Ironically, full credit goes to a Yank rather than a Brit. During a visit to London in 1949, Chicago-born actor Sam Wanamaker was shocked when, upon searching for the historic theater, he could find only a small plaque on the side of a brewery wall that stated: "Here stood the Globe Playhouse of Shakespeare." The area was derelict and abandoned, yet its former glory resonated through the old Tudor road names: Clink Street, Bankside, and Skin Market Place. "They should build a Globe here," he mused.

But only when Mr. Wanamaker moved to Britain a few years later and finally resolved to take on the project himself did the American actor realize why it had never before materialized. The obstacles that he encountered were legion: Byzantine politics; snail's-pace bureaucracy; vociferous opposition from certain local factions; protracted court battles; painstaking international networking, and fund-raising. More than three decades later, he had little more than an undeveloped plot of land on the banks of London's River Thames to show for his efforts.

Still, although the actor passed away several years ago, he did live long enough to witness the initial spadework for what had become an all-consuming obsession. In an interview shortly before the much-celebrated groundbreaking, Wanamaker spoke about his vision for the theater. He emphatically did not want yet another ye olde England tourist attraction. The key aim, he averred, would be to promote education and informed appreciation of Shakespeare and his work.

"There are Elizabethan-style theaters around, but nothing that even comes close to the structure and conditions of the original Globe," Wanamaker emphasized with pride, as we gazed at the empty site that would one day become a reincarnation of the Bard's playhouse.

To that end, re-creating the Globe in exacting Elizabethan detail was to be the project's hallmark. While no interior drawings of the original Globe exist, literally hundreds of scholars from around the world have helped piece together what the theater and its environs would have been like.

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It is now known, for example, that the polygonal structure was small by today's standards - probably about 32 feet high and 100 feet in diameter - yet may well have held up to 3,000 people. This was achieved by packing audiences into balconies up along the sides, while the "groundlings" stood watching, some of them crammed against the stage itself. Seats were backless, and the entire "groundling" area was open to the elements.

The rebuilt Globe is made of solid oak, using only Tudor craftsmanship - right down to oak tenons instead of nails. Likewise, no modern staging technology is employed, save a bank of overhead lights to re-create daylight, allowing some performances to be held at night. (In Shakespeare's day all shows began at 2 p.m.) When it rains, the "groundlings" and, to some extent, the actors get soaked; and when the wind blows, it whips through the "0" with unimpeded abandon. The only concessions to the 20th century are a set of fire sprinklers nestled discreetly in the partial-roof's thatching and the lengthening of door frames by about six inches to allow for today's taller theatergoers.

"It's a unique and remarkable building," says Andrew Gurr, professor of English at Reading University and a world expert in Shakespearean staging. As one of the chief advisers for the Globe reconstruction, he has a particularly insightful view of the entire project. And after having been a "groundling" last week for the first production - a modern-dress rendering of an infrequently staged early work, "Two Gentlemen of Verona" - he is refreshingly candid in his appraisal of what will ultimately be a more than $47 million enterprise.

"The real danger is of it becoming theme-park kitsch," says Dr. Gurr, echoing a concern expressed privately by other insiders, "a kind of jollification of Shakespeare for the beginner." On the one hand, he was heartened by the serious intent of the first production, which self-consciously avoided that possibility with its 1990s interpretation and international, multiracial casting; on the other hand, he admits to being a bit disappointed.

"The production didn't seem to me to make much use of the Globe's peculiarities," he observes. "It's the sort of production you could see pretty much anywhere." He goes on to explain that the new Globe is a "distinctly peculiar" kind of theater, which needs to be recognized as such and therefore used in a manner that is wholly unfamiliar to modern actors.

"I think there is always a reassurance in doing familiar things in familiar ways," says Gurr. "But the real value of the Globe will be in doing things in what, for us, will be new ways. It seems to me quite important to be experimental. This is something we will have to learn."

Contributors to the theater include a diverse group: Businesses, educational institutions, celebrities, and assorted other Shakespeare devotees from many nations have contributed money and raw materials. Shakespeare, after all, belongs to everyone these days, not just the British. And the largest number of contributors from a single country has been, not surprisingly, from the United States. It is somewhat fitting, therefore, that the Globe's first artistic director, Mark Rylance, besides being a young former Royal Shakespeare Company actor, is also half American.

"Mark has a kind of versatility and an international background," says Gurr, "which is actually essential to the character of the Globe project as a whole. He is also a brilliant actor."

While Mr. Rylance's appointment at the helm has not been without controversy - more for his reputation as a somewhat ethereal New Ager than his dual nationality - the choice of leadership does in fact remain in keeping with Shakespeare's own notion of the Globe as being very much an "actors' theater," with actors themselves working the plays out as a team.

And perhaps the biggest challenge facing that team is to never lose sight of Wanamaker's overriding mission: To find a way to educate and excite and, in so doing, deeply touch the hearts of contemporary audiences who have been brought up on the fast-changing spectacles that pour forth from the modern entertainment industry. It's a mission Rylance seems to be fully aware of.

"The Globe comes from a time and a place," he says, "where there flourished one of the greatest love affairs with language that there has ever been - anywhere. I hope the reconstructed Globe will inspire a new renaissance simply in our love of the very sound of language."

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